10 pointers to help you shoot better sunsets

I’ve written these ten pointers to help beginners and improvers take better sunrise and sunset photographs. It is primarily for those with digital SLR or mirrorless cameras, but in deference to the lovely people I met last year in Goa (where I gave a short workshop on sunset photography for people with very basic cameras), I’ve also considered those who have point-and-press or phonecams.

1. Get the horizon as straight as you possibly can (unless you’re after a deliberately ‘amateur’ look or want the viewer to feel that something is wrong).

A cropped image shows that, while the sunset is beautiful, concentrating on the background makes the image less meaningful.

This cropped image of a Thessaloniki sunset is pretty, but not very special.

Here's another crop to show that, while a composition of both background and middle ground looks better, it still doesn't have the impact of the full image.

This crop of the same image showing background and middle ground still doesn’t have much impact.

2. Look for a foreground, middle ground and background. The viewer’s eye will relate better to this than a shot of just the sky.

This shot, of sunset at Thessaloniki taken from the shore, has foreground, middle ground and background and so gives a feeling of scale.

The same image again (with one element taken out) gives a feeling of scale because it shows a foreground (sea), middle ground (mountains) and background (sky).

3. Think about the composition and remember that shooting from any other angle than that of a typical tourist will make your photograph more interesting.

4. Rather than looking for an empty area, look for other points of interest that you can incorporate into your shot. A sunset with something interesting in the foreground will look better than one with nothing. Positioned correctly, silhouettes or other objectsadd interest to your photograph.

Sunset at Thessaloniki taken from the shore.

This is the actual shot I took. By waiting until the boat was well inside the right hand third of the image (rule of thirds) I have introduced a narrative. The position of the boat implies optimism, forward motion and a big open sea.

5. If you have manual options on your camera, consider underexposing your image to make the colours look richer. To understand how you can show the sunset in different ways, try  shooting at a variety of different exposures (I’ve already written a post on understanding exposure, and centre weighted or spot metering will help). If you have no manual option you can still change the way the camera exposes your images by pointing your camera towards different things (land, sky, sun, sea), leaving your finger half down on the shutter release button and clicking fully after you have moved the camera to make the composition you want.

6. Don’t use the sunset icon on your camera dial (if you have it). If you do you’ll get the camera’s bland settings and won’t be expressing yourself or making the shot different.

7. If you have a zoom lens, try shooting at a variety of focal lengths by zooming in and out. This will give focus to different aspects of your photograph, thereby changing your story. Try it and see!

8. Take your white balance off auto or your camera won’t shoot what you see. Daylight, cloudy and shade options will probably be best, but it depends on what you want to show.

9. Most good photography is as much about waiting for the right moment as it is about camera skills. Wait; for the right clouds, for the dog to run along the beach, for birds to fly into the shot. Wait for anything that will make your sunset special.

10. Stay longer! The sky changes colour after the sun has gone below the horizon. This is often when the light is most beautiful and colours at their richest.

Special light at special times

Silhouettes at the Golden Hour in Iceland.

An opportunistic shot showing silhouettes during Iceland’s Blue Hour.

Sunrise and sunset skies are different in colour to the rest of the day because of the angle through which the Sun’s rays penetrate the atmosphere and how the light rays are dispersed in the air. The different angle of light also gives rise to sharper shadows.

Recognised everywhere, these special times of day are known by photographers as the Blue and Golden hour respectively (those working in film might call it the Magic Hour too). The actual length of time during which the light is good depends on where you are in the world and on the time of the year. Visit countries near the Arctic Circle in autumn and winter to experience very long Blue and Golden Hours. In Iceland in November we were treated to 3 hours of Blue Hour, an hour of mid-day sun and 3 hours of Golden Hour, while in the summer the Blue and Golden Hours are so small as to be insignificant.



Don’t forget that photography is an art as well as a science. That’s why I give you pointers and not rules. Investigate them, play with them, then decide what works best for you.